This paper explores the links between the legal and conceptual framings of LGBTQ identities found within marriage equality debates and the efforts of the US and other Global North states to promote and protect LGBTQ rights beyond their own borders. In undertaking this analysis, the paper suggests that imagining new futures in international LGBTQ politics demands a careful view of the visible and invisible legal, discursive and conceptual arrangements that animate the present. It therefore seeks to explore how the perception of marriage as a completed victory, separate from questions of international LGBTQ rights, can be used as a point of departure for analyzing the interplay of the international, domestic and local spheres of LGBTQ politics. In doing so, it asks what space might exist within this interplay for the future of international LGBTQ politics and activism.
While some readings of the Obergefell judgment frame it as a turning point or an opportunity to move on to new challenges, a closer examination of the spatio-temporal dynamics of ‘after’ marriage invites us to instead decentralize US and European marriage debates and explore ways in which they continue to reverberate internationally. The paper therefore views this particular moment not as one in which the relevance or irrelevance of the equal marriage debate to international LGBTQ politics is at issue, but instead as a point through which it is possible to explore fluctuations in the way in which sexuality and gender identity are deployed for political and legal ends. This deployment operates both teleologically with respect to discourses of civilization, modernity and neoliberalism and cartographically according to crude binaries of visibility/invisibility or persecution/protection.
These spatio-temporal questions of power, identity and place play out in an international landscape that is increasingly attuned to LGBTQ rights and politics. From marriage and relationships, to LGBTQ tourism, to Internet advocacy to UN statements and resolutions, LGBTQ politics and rights travel across borders. Moreover, powerful states appear increasingly willing to direct diplomatic efforts and frame policies with regard to furthering LGBTQ rights overseas. The very real problem that those seeking to support LGBTQ rights across jurisdictions face is that of how and whether these efforts can be effective without overwhelming local identities and efforts, reinforcing dangerous civilizational tropes or inviting backlash.
The power dynamics of international LGBTQ law, politics and rights has been subject to extensive criticism by activists and academics. Perhaps as a result, many foreign and development policies that deal with international LGBTQ issues now tend to highlight the importance of partnerships with civil society and others, in order to advance LGBTQ rights and combat discrimination and violence. The focus of these partnerships is rarely advocacy directly connected to marriage, yet the disciplinary linking of sexuality and state power – epitomized in the equal marriage debate – still haunts international discourses of LGBTQ rights and politics. Using this contextual and policy framework, this paper explores the forms of diplomatic language used in relation to LGBTQ rights and examines the extent to which it is possible to listen to or be led by LGBTQ activists in diverse locations, in an intensely uneven international legal landscape that has developed in the context of very visible debates and shifts with respect to sexual and gender identities in powerful states. While an acknowledgement of partnership exists in official communications, within the narrow confines of diplomatic action, increasingly powerful discourses of homonomativity and homocapitalism and ‘golden handcuffs’ binding state power, sexuality and law, a considerable gap may exist between stated goals and actual possibilities for action. This paper asks how diverse iterations of sexual and gender identities and forms of action can encounter otherness within the international legal landscape, and what ‘listening’ or partnership might actually mean in this context.